Allison Hoffmann and Lauren Plaxa joined Merion Mercy Academy this year as the school’s new college counselors and they’ve already left an impression on Head of School Marianne Grace. “They both have impressive and unique backgrounds, which greatly benefit our students.”
We interviewed Hoffmann and Plaxa about their professional journeys, why they chose college counseling, and how they define success in the college admissions process.
Tell me about yourself:
AH: I attended Franklin & Marshall where I was a collegiate rower. After college I worked for College Advising Corps, an Americorps program that helps low income and first generation students apply to college. I worked at six Archdiocesan high schools with the Maguire Foundation. (Merion Mercy Academy is one of several schools in Pennsylvania offering Maguire Scholarships.)
After that I switched to the other side of the desk and worked in college admissions. I was at University of the Sciences for three years, then Ursinus College for two years. I worked with the scholarship program there and really loved it.
I also hold a master’s in Higher Education from Temple University.
LP: I’m from Newtown Square and attended St. Joseph’s for college as an English major. While I was there, I was inspired by the time I spent in classrooms in West Philly and I earned a secondary education minor to teach there after graduation, which I did for 12 years. The first two years were with Teach for America. I got my master’s at the University of Pennsylvania during that time. The next school I went to needed a college counselor so I kind of fell into that and I loved it. I spent 10 years as a college counselor and academic advisor for Freire Charter School, and also taught courses in English and US history.
What made you want to be a college counselor?
AH: Being on the other side of the desk in admissions, I’ve read so many college essays and letters of recommendation and had that experience reviewing applications. But admissions can be a little “salesy” so I was excited to come back to the side of providing the information that would help a student find their best fit and best path.
Working one-on-one with students and families has always been my favorite part of the job—really connecting with them and helping them through that process.
LP: I love talking to students and their families about their dreams. There’s something really exciting about helping a student and their family—because it really is a whole family process—get to where they want to go. It’s amazing to watch students zero in on what they’re strengths and talents are. To watch how they assume responsibility over the process themselves. It’s also a time when they take account of everything they’ve done in high school. There’s a lot of reflection. It’s a very special time in their lives and it’s a privilege to be a part of it.
What do you see as your most important responsibility as a counselor?
AH: I think the most important thing is to provide guidance and be supportive through the process. Even when students are waiting to hear back from colleges, that can be a really tough time, and that’s when I remind them that they’ve already put in the work. I reassure them that they will find a path and be successful.
Another thing is getting to know the students really well, which we have the privilege of doing. We’re able to provide tailored guidance for them; everyone needs different levels of assistance throughout the process. That’s important and something we’re really thankful we’re able to do.
LP: I feel like there’s a travel analogy here. The student is the pilot. We’re the air traffic controllers ensuring a safe landing. They’re the ones in charge and they have the power over their decisions and it’s important for them to be the agent of their plans, but it’s on us to make sure the flight is smooth and they land where they need to land. The process is as individualized as the students themselves.
What strategies do you use to help students identify and explore potential career paths and academic interests when considering colleges?
AH: When I meet with students and they’re undecided I usually ask them questions as simple as “Do you like working with a group of people or independently?” “Are you cool sitting at a desk or do you want a more active job?” We talk about their academic interests. Sometimes we’ll also have them do career assessments. Then I will recommend schools to them that have certain programs and suggest they do their own research online and visit the schools to learn more.
How important do you think it is for students to choose a major before they go to college?
LP: I think it’s more important for students to be able to assess their own strengths and needs than it is for them to choose a specific major. After your first job, that major is less important than your work experience. If a student is truly undecided, I am okay with them going in undecided, but at this point they at least need to know what they’re good at and what they’re interested in. They should explore career paths but not necessarily commit to one right now.
AH: It’s so common for students to change their major in college. A lot of the time it’s more about the skills you learn getting a college degree, like communication, writing, research—those soft skills employers are looking for. That can make more of a difference in someone’s career. But of course, if someone is interested in something like engineering or nursing it’s an easier path if they know that early on.
How do you support students in creating a well-rounded and compelling college application?
AH: We review every single section of their college application with them. For example, I’ll go over the activity section and make sure they’re including the impact they made in their community. And it’s really about selling themselves. I think students don’t want to come across as bragging, but if there’s any time to be confident and share what you’ve done, it’s your college application. We help them with their college essays from brainstorming to editing, and suggest who to ask for letters of recommendations.
LP: Sometimes it’s just about giving the student the space to do the application and helping them overcome the anxiety of even starting. Some students come in and they have it ready and all you have to do is proofread it if they want you to. For some students it’s about sitting with them and actually creating their account with them and then turning the reins over. It’s just confidence building sometimes.
What advantages does a private school have over a public school when it comes to college counseling?
LP: The biggest one is the individualized attention. Having worked in a public school, I know I would have three other jobs besides college counseling. I might have 130 kids (versus 45 students per counselor at Merion Mercy). In a public school, I might see the kids once or twice. Here, college counseling is our only job and we get to know our students quickly because we have the time to do it.
AH: At a school like Merion Mercy, the students are becoming competitive college applicants from the minute they start here. They take rigorous classes, become involved in extracurriculars and leadership roles, and have other opportunities like the Diploma with Distinction program. They’re already building up that resume.
What do you consider success in the college admissions process?
LP: I’m never going into this wishing for a specific college for any student. I am sad when they don’t get into their first choice, because I care about them, but I believe it will work out. A successful process could have any number of outcomes. Not getting into your top choice is not unsuccessful. Thriving and loving where you go is success.
AH: It’s about finding a school that’s a good fit and match in terms of what’s most important to the individual student and family: academics, student life, cost. Just confidently leaving senior year with a plan that you feel happy with.
What do you love about working at Merion Mercy Academy?:
AH: One of my favorite things is the girls come in and announce where they’ve been admitted to. We celebrate with them and share in their excitement. The students are so spirited and want to be engaged and involved, which is very special.
I also love how much everyone here cares about the students.
LP: Students are so supportive of each other. I don’t think that’s always the case in such a high achieving school. There might be competition among the students but I’ve only ever seen them be really supportive and caring about one another. They do a world of good for each other on a daily basis.
Next up on our blog, “The Journey,” we will soon feature a post by Hoffmann and Plaxa titled “From Admitted to Committed: Preparing to Thrive in College” in which they explain the distinct difference between preparing a student to gain admission to college and preparing them to succeed once they get there.
Hoffmann and Plaxa have also submitted a piece to Independent School magazine on how schools can help students and families mitigate the stress and anxiety that is part of the college admission process.